Cyber attacks: MPs and peers to examine UK 'vulnerabilities'

MPs and peers are to investigate the threat posed to the UK by cyber attacks from other states, including Russia.

A committee headed by former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett will look at the range and origin of threats as part of a review of the government’s new national cyber security strategy.

She said hostile actions by foreign governments “for political purposes” were among challenges facing the UK.

Ministers say a “small number” of foreign actors present a danger.

The government has identified cyber warfare as a tier one threat to the UK alongside international terrorism although it has publicly refrained from naming Russia – which is widely thought to have engaged in cyber warfare for a decade – or any other state.

The US government expelled 35 Russian diplomats last month in response to what it says were attempts, sanctioned by Moscow, to interfere in November’s presidential election.

But US president-elect Donald Trump, who takes power later this month, has questioned the basis for claims – denied as groundless by the Kremlin – that it was behind cyber attacks on rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Democrat Party computer servers.

The decision by the UK’s joint committee on the National Security Strategy to investigate cyber warfare predates the US-Russian row and it says it wishes to see the evidence before reaching any conclusions about individual threats.

But the committee – whose members include former senior Conservative and Labour ministers and former top civil servants – said the UK’s potential vulnerability to cyber attacks was a source of “increasing concern”.

“Attention has recently focused on the potential exploitation of the cyber domain by other states and associated actors for political purposes,” Dame Margaret, who was foreign secretary under Tony Blair and a former head of the intelligence and security committee, said.

“But this is just one source of threat that the government must address through its recently launched five-year strategy.”

The Labour MP added: “While the digital revolution has opened up a whole host of opportunities, it has also created new vulnerabilities.”

The government has said its aim is to make the UK a “harder target” for cyber attacks – through improved information sharing and co-operation with international allies and the private sector, as well as enforcement of laws and international standards of behaviour.

Identifying and deterring threats have been named as priorities in future with ministers saying that while much of this work will take place in secret, they are prepared to “attribute specific cyber identities publicly” when it is deemed to be in the national interest.

‘Strike back’

Speaking in October, Chancellor Philip Hammond said a small number of “hostile foreign actors” had the capacity to mount “offensive” and “destructive” attacks.

Cyber warfare, he said, posed a threat to the UK’s critical national infrastructure and UK industrial control systems and it would be irresponsible to “turn the other cheek” and allow perpetrators to act with impunity.

He insisted the UK would “not only defend ourselves in cyberspace” but “strike back in kind when we are attacked”.

The UK spent £860m on bolstering its resilience to cyber attacks between 2010 and 2015 and ministers have set aside a further £1.9bn over the next five years to further strengthen the UK’s defences, sponsor research, promote careers in cyber security and teach cyber “life-skills”.

Former Labour cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw has said the government and the intelligence community should be doing more to investigate “Kremlin interference” in the UK.

In a Commons debate last month, he said it was “highly probable” that Russia had sought to meddle in the EU referendum, although there was no evidence at this stage, and said they would be likely to target other elections in Europe.